Gareth Malone: With a song in his heart

He's the cherished TV choirmaster who inspires stirring deeds from people who never knew what they had in them. Could his power to transform culminate in a Christmas No 1?

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The Independent Online

The race for Christmas No 1 becomes less interesting by the year, and not just because nobody buys singles any more.

Since 2005, with hope-dashing inevitability, the top spot has been taken by an X Factor number – barring one exception, in 2009, when it was taken instead by an equally tragic anti-X Factor offering. This Christmas, however, might just be different.

Gareth Malone, your mum's favourite 36-going-on-16 choirmaster, has twirled his metaphorical magic baton again (he doesn't actually use a baton) and turned a troop of military wives from north Devon into a troupe of angelic singers, for the latest series of BBC2's The Choir. To Simon Cowell's undoubted chagrin, their song "Wherever You Are" is the bookies' favourite to beat both the X Factor single and Susan Boyle to Christmas No 1.

The Choir: Military Wives is Malone's sixth major television project since the original series of The Choir in 2007. Then, he trained a group of sceptical schoolchildren to sing from scratch, finally chaperoning them to an international choral competition in China. The following year, for Boys Don't Sing, he led a large choir of unruly and, at first, unmusical boys to a stirring performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Last year, in Unsung Town, he set up a now-thriving community choir in the tough South Oxhey housing estate outside Watford. He even got a gang of television chefs to sing a choral rendition of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" for Comic Relief.

Given the present significance of the armed forces in British public life, Malone has described his latest challenge as the biggest yet. "Wherever You Are" was written for the voices of more than 40 military wives by the composer Paul Mealor, and its lyrics were lifted from the women's letters to their husbands in Afghanistan. In giving a public voice to the soldiers', sailors' and airmen's other halves, the series allowed them to express, in public, emotions that they might otherwise feel obliged to disguise. Broadcast last month, it culminated in a performance before the Queen at the Festival of Remembrance on 11 November.

In each of his programmes, Malone cajoles reluctant non-singers into a coherent musical force. He invariably wins over suspicious groups and communities, whose first instinct is to resist his ideas. He presses them into service, prises out their long-suppressed voices and demonstrates the power of music to make them and others feel good. Then he takes them, tear-jerkingly and triumphantly, to China, to the Albert Hall, or to Glyndebourne. "I am interested in people singing with a sense of mission," he said recently, "whether it's getting the whole 'Unsung Town' of South Oxhey to be heard, or trying to reach difficult schoolboys." The Prime Minister and his Big Society brain trust are surely taking notes.

Malone himself – optimistic, evangelical, if occasionally exasperated – could easily have been the real-life model for Glee's schoolmaster, Mr Schue. And along with Glee, his programmes have helped to transform the image of choral singing. In 2007, as part of its Music Manifesto, the government put £40m aside over four years for Sing Up, a national singing programme for schoolchildren, led by the composer and music broadcaster Howard Goodall. "Sing Up has completely changed the culture of singing in primary schools," says Edwina Wolstencroft, the editor of Radio 3's long-running series The Choir (not to be confused with Malone's), who credits both Goodall and Malone with the resurgence of choirs.

"Gareth's early series got young people involved in something they might have been afraid of: self-expression through the voice," Wolstencroft says. "Traditionally, choral singing in boys' schools was seen as a bit sissy. But Gareth has made it cool, which is a brilliant stroke. And it is reaching parts of society that choral singing never reached before. The sheer variety of new choirs is astounding. There are people at firms in the City now, saying, 'Shall we form an office choir?'"

Were Malone to mark the end of that four-year investment by beating Cowell to Christmas No 1 – and with a choir, of all things – it would be an amazing achievement. As if to prove its breadth of appeal, the single's most high-profile champion is not a Radio 3 DJ, but Chris Evans of Radio 2, who has been urging his listeners to send it to the top of the charts.

Malone was born in Dorset in 1975. His father, James, worked in a bank; his mother, Sian, in Marks & Spencer. The couple sang in a local choir, and their son's first memory, he claims, was hearing a recording of Vivaldi's Gloria. He attended Bournemouth School, a boys' grammar with a history of high academic standards and rigorous discipline, where he admits he was sometimes bullied for his refined musical tastes. "It took me a good six or so months of being in Year 7 at secondary school to pluck up the courage to [join] the choir," he told The Independent in 2008. "A new teacher came, a man, and I think that's probably what got me to go and do it."

As a drama student at the University of East Anglia, he became a composer, a chorister and even a theatre director for a student drama company. According to one UEA contemporary, who appeared in a Malone-directed production of Macbeth, "Gareth wasn't one of those maverick student directors with mad theatrical pretensions. He wasn't a theatre poser. He had a very intelligent, traditional approach to Shakespeare, and I remember that we spent a lot of time close-reading the text. He was also incredibly organised compared to other student drama groups: a really likeable guy, but not a pushover as likeable guys can sometimes be. He was an enthusiast, not a know-all, and his enthusiasm was infectious."

After leaving university, Malone took a postgraduate degree in singing at the Royal Academy of Music, passed with a distinction, and in 2001 won the post of "Edward Heath Assistant Animateur" at the London Symphony Orchestra, where he remained in charge of the youth and community choirs until two years ago. It was while at the LSO in 2005 that he was approached, out of the blue, by the television production company 20/20, with the suggestion that he take part in their new project – a series about singing in schools. The Choir went on to win two Baftas and three million viewers.

Malone did, he admits, once harbour ambitions as a singer. But "life's taken a different turn, [and] we don't all have to be violins to be in the orchestra". So successful were Malone's singing programmes at motivating schoolchildren that in 2010 he was also allowed to make Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys, in which he attempted to engage troublesome boys with his own off-beat primary school teaching techniques. Among inspirational television personalities, only he and Jamie Oliver have been awarded such freedom to meddle with the education system.

Today, Malone lives in north-west London with his wife, Becky, an English teacher, and their one-year old daughter, Esther – though the whole family decamped to Devon for the filming of Military Wives. Earlier this year, he published his first book: Music for the People: the Pleasures and Pitfalls of Classical Music. He appears on its cover, grinning and youthful with his signature quiff and bow tie.

"Likeable" is the word Malone's mention most often evokes, and his genuine charm is undoubtedly the secret of his success. "Any good choirmaster adjusts his approach for the group that he's with, and Gareth does exactly that," says Wolstencroft. "His talent is not so much in his technique as in his ability to get the best out of people, and to make them trust him. He has a fantastic gift as a facilitator, and he's genuinely likeable. That's the key to being a good choral conductor: there are no instruments in the way, it's just you and a bunch of people. And if people like you, then they will automatically sing better for you."

A life in brief

Born: Bournemouth, 1975.

Family: His father, James, worked in a bank; his mother, Sian, in Marks & Spencer. Married to Becky; they have a one-year-old daughter, Esther.

Education: Bournemouth Grammar School; drama at the University of East Anglia. Postgraduate at the Royal Academy of Music.

Career: Became Edward Heath Assistant Animateur of the London Symphony Orchestra in 2001. Runs the LSO St Luke's Community and Youth Choirs but best known for his TV series The Choir and its offshoots.

He says: "I love art, literature and other forms of expression but for me music, and singing, is the greatest art form."

They say: "It speaks love, it speaks care, it speaks magic and it speaks massive emotion, all the right things at the right time." Chris Evans on "Wherever You Are".